In Britain, plenty of laughing matters

Americans, terrorists, taxes, and rich folk provide fodder for London comedians

Visitors to London often go to the theater or museums to find out more about British culture. But if you really want a mirror of the British soul, drop by a comedy club.

A sense of humor is one of the most enduring of things British – along with the royal family and disappointing weather.

These days, what's making them laugh are jokes about the euro (the single currency they snub), new traffic taxes (to reduce congestion in London), and the ways of Americans (who do things like sitting on the front row of London's Chuckle Club, on the grounds of the London School of Economics, wearing a lobster-print shirt).

Many of the comedy routines here are full of the cross-pond rivalry that's existed since the tea hit the harbor. Americans are seen as being overbearing and having a comical president, but they are also used as a model when it comes to explaining to polite British crowds the kind of enthusiasm needed to welcome a comedian on stage.

"We're going to pretend to be Americans now – whooping and cheering," prompts funnyman and host Lee Hurst as he introduces the first act at his Backyard Comedy Club in East London.

When they reach the spotlight, comedians often launch into jokes about the war on terror and a possible invasion of Iraq.

Comic relief

Al Murray points out in his act that the Brits may prove more useful in helping to get Saddam Hussein than they have been in finding Osama bin Laden. The reason? Facial hair. Osama has a beard, and Brits are better at defeating villains with mustaches, he jokes.

They also need a new foe. "We're friends with the Germans now," quips Mr. Murray while on stage at the Comedy Pit in the northern neighborhood of Tooting – "which is why the Iraqis have volunteered to take their place."

Comedians here talk politics, but also explore another British fascination: class. Audience members wearing ties are an easy target for comics in London – many of whom hail from the working-class English Midlands. They describe what it's like living in a city packed with the "posh" set.

All the rich folk want to talk about is eating couscous, observes Jo Enright, who says she learned how working-class she really is when she moved to the city.

"We haven't got couscous in Birmingham. We're still really excited about mayonnaise," she jokes. "Couscous is a sound we make to call a cat over."

If comedians are any gauge, Britons are also concerned about the lasting effects of their experiences in school – the most significant of which seem to be bullying and learning Latin.

For victims of bullies there is this warning: Don't try to fend off the aggressive types by using the rhyme: "Sticks and stones may break my bones...."

As comedian and confessed former bully Matthew Osborn points out, "Why give us instructions?"

Holiday travails

Brits are single-minded when it comes to going on holiday; no catastrophe will keep them from carrying out their plans, Mr. Hurst, the host, tells his audience. But sometimes they have trouble navigating the linguistic challenges of contemporary globetrotting.

Latin is "very useful if you're going on a holiday – to the past," quips another comedian, Addy Borgh.

Britain's various accents can present language obstacles to foreigners as well, notes Canadian Craig Campbell, who performs all over Britain.

He once had trouble pronouncing the name of a pastry in Scotland – a place where, to the uninitiated, the brogues are unintelligible.

"You know you're a long way from home," he tells his listeners at the Backyard Comedy Club, "when Scottish people are making fun of how you talk."

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